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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Iceland Part IV: Camping in Iceland

Here's how it works: pull into the campground and idle the vehicle slowly around the grassy field. Scan the grounds for anything that could stand in as a windbreak (bushes, fence, berm, larger vehicle). Note the location of the bathrooms–you'll want to park closer if it looks like rain– then find a space big enough to accommodate your vehicle as well as your travel buddy's, since you lost them a bit ago to a grocery store, museum, or unscheduled sightseeing mission but you know they'll be turning up sooner or later. Make a choice, back in, then put the car in neutral, letting it roll until it finds the flattest, most level position possible. Get out of the car and stretch. Now you're camping in Iceland!

A berm and some foliage goes a long way to protect us from the wind that seemed to be ever-present in Iceland.
Drangsnes Campground

If you're going camping to get away from it all, slip away and have some alone time to spend in the wilderness, Iceland is not your place. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of spots where you'll find yourself alone with nature, spectacular viewpoints and amazing vistas, they're just not located in the campgrounds. You might get lucky and be the first one to arrive at a site and have a bit of peace and quiet for a bit. Sooner or later though, you will have company.

Wild camping is prohibited in Iceland. I think they want to discourage people from driving off road (also strictly prohibited) and destroying the thick layers of moss that cover all that lava rock. It takes years to recover from just human foot traffic, I can only imagine how long is would take the land to recover from off-road vehicle tracks. They also have a big problem with public defecation. I know, it's disgusting to think about. Imagine how disgusting it would be to look out your farmhouse window and see some tourist squatting in your field? For all these reasons (plus I'm sure they appreciate the fees collected) staying in campgrounds is required.

Not much more than a place to park, camping in Myvatn was crowded,
but close to many attractions in the geothermally active area.
It had a great view of the lake though.
The sun sets over Lake Myvatn. Ok, this place isn't half bad.

The campgrounds in Iceland are generally big open fields. You can chose your spot with care, leaving a bit of room between you and the closest neighbor, but eventually you'll have another vehicle slide in beside you. The coziness extends to other areas as well. Most of the campgrounds we stayed in had shared facilities; you might find yourself brushing your teeth next to a big burly guy standing next to a cute twenty-something woman. The feet in the next stall might be petite pink tennis shoes or giant hiking boots. Showers were often the same setup. Nothing says togetherness like stepping out of the shower next to a hairy dude that's been backpacking his way around Iceland for the last three months.

This campground was located on a farm. Being in a remote spot, we expected to have to pay cash. Our host came out with a hand held card reader and took care of our payment with little fuss, although she had to walk up a hill and hold the reader in the air to catch the wifi from the farmhouse.
The barn, and another great sunset

One of the most notable facilities was in the Northern Iceland town of Drangsnes. There was a large building that I think was used as a hostel (it appeared to be closed for the season). In the room to the side of this building there were two bathroom stalls, a washer/dryer with a laundry sink and counter, two shower stalls with two shower heads each, and a picnic table in the middle. One rainy evening there were at least ten people in there: a couple doing their laundry, someone in the toilet stall doing what one does in a toilet stall, and a group of campers making dinner at the picnic table. All this in a healthy cloud of steam rolling out from one of the shower stalls, the ambience being enhanced by the freshly showered young lady dressing in the corner. It took some getting used to, coming from the strictly segregated facilities of our apparently prudish U.S. National Parks.

In truth, after a few nights we did get used to the arrangement and came to appreciate the fact that the campgrounds were so numerous. There is so much to see in Iceland, and such a large amount of ground to cover, it was nice to know the nearest campground was never too far away.

This was the least crowded, most remotely located campground we visited.
The bridge led across a warm river to a hot spring, fed by a hot waterfall.
I'll let you find it if you decide to go. It was spectacular.
Sometimes you stop when it's convenient.
This campground in Hofn was huge and sort of industrial. It had tiered parking areas built on a slight rise in town.
Here's Mark surveying our 15 foot slice of heaven.

The Skaftafell National Park campground had great views, and was very crowded. It was also the only one that had some  laid out sites you could choose from. It was an interesting social experiment; we noticed mostly Americans chose the separated sites, the Europeans opting to park side by side in the parking lot style area. Go with what you know I guess.
High in the mountains nestled between two active volcanoes, Landmannalaugar was our coldest, dampest night spent in Iceland. We got rain then snow, and the campground was just a gravel parking lot, but in the morning we woke up to an amazing view.
The view from our rear window in the morning.
Our campground host one night.
This one was closed for the season, but we stayed there anyway and were treated to a Northern Lights show that night.
Watching the whales swim by from the berm above our campsite.
Drangsnes Campground
(Photo credit: LeeWhay Pasek, OverlandWithUs)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Iceland Part III: Siggi and the Lighthouse

We lasted 33 hours before we fell into bed in our van, exhausted but happy to be camping in Iceland at last. Our friends Ryan and LeeWhay, who had shipped their Sprinter van over a few weeks previous, were at the campground to greet us, and Rasa, Craig and their friend Michelle had shown up a bit later in the truck/camper they had rented for the trip. It seemed hard to believe that we were meeting up with them in such a faraway place. But first, we're really tired guys...

The next day we popped awake early, ready to start this adventure.

We met Siggi at the door of the Gar∂skagi lighthouse. He seemed a bit grumpy when we said hello after passing him on the walkway. At first, we didn't know he worked there, we thought he was just hanging around enjoying the view like we were. When he told us we could come in and have a cup of coffee, we politely declined after looking over the small menu posted at the door. Four bucks for a cup of coffee seemed steep, and we were enjoying the weather and exploring the old boats and historical plaques scattered around the park there. He made a comment about how Americans always just wanted to take selfies and drive off to the next waterfall, then drifted inside.

Huh. Ok.
An old fishing boat was moored in the parking lot of Gar∂skaga Park.
Behind it, the "new" lighthouse, built in 1944.
A view from the top deck of the "Holmsteinn Gar∂i"

Our friends had an appointment in town and had to leave us, so we made lunch in the van and looked at the map. Today was supposed to be a relaxed, get-used-to-Iceland day and it happened to be a bright sunny one at that. It was nice not to have a set itinerary.

"You know, why did we come here?" I asked Mark. "To see stuff and find out what Iceland is like, right?"

We tossed around that thought for a bit, and decided the perfect introduction to Iceland and its people was grousing about Americans in the lighthouse just a few yards away.

"Let's do it."
Gar∂skagaviti Lighthouse

We walked in the door and found the guy fussing with the tables and chairs. I don't think he recognized us from our initial meeting outside. We told him we'd like a coffee and hot chocolate, and with that he visibly brightened. "Oh! Good! Sit down, I'll get it ready for you."

With the price of a cup of coffee, you get a tour of one of Iceland's oldest lighthouses. Our host introduced himself as Siggi, and he lived in the nearby town of Sandger∂i. He told us the lighthouse had been built by women in 1897 to guide their fisherman husbands home from sea. It was, he said with a flourish, The Lighthouse of Love.

The view from inside the cupola.
With that, he sent us up the set of rickety ladders (God I love a country that trusts you to not hurt yourself!) leading to the roof and cupola where the light used to reside (a newer, taller lighthouse was constructed a short way inland, making this one obsolete in 1944). It was a great view, and I can imagine a fantastic place to view whales and dolphins that sometimes swim by. We took some photos and squinted in the sun and wind, then came back down for the rest of story.

Mark stands ghost-like inside the tower of the lighthouse.
The view back toward the new lighthouse.

From here, I will paraphrase Siggi:

Icelandic people are different from others. They treat their women with respect, no different from the men. There is little divorce, and women are strong and smart. Icelandic men don't feel they need to prove anything, and are happy to share everything with their wives (at this point I punched Mark in the arm). Siggi pointed out that he was a highly respected football (soccer) coach, and he had trained many winning teams for Iceland. He could have any woman he wanted, but he was happy with his wife. "Why would I want more?" (Mark received another punch).

This lighthouse was built by women because they decided too many fisherman were dying at sea. They designed it so it would have thick walls to withstand the winds, and a bright light that would guide them home. Each stone was placed with care, knowing each one would contribute to a family that would not lose a loved one.

He regaled us with stories about the Vikings (Wikings!) and how they claimed to have discovered Iceland. How did they discover a place where we were already living? They did not discover Iceland! He told us about Leif Eriksson who sailed to Iceland with his mother from Norway and became a great explorer in part by spending time here. He sailed to Greenland and hunted walrus so he could sell their skins and make money to build a ship. He told us how Icelanders like Italians, but they were full of bologna when they claimed Columbus discovered America. How could he discover a place that Leif had already discovered four hundred years before? (At this point I couldn't help myself, I told him there were some Native Americans that might have a problem with that. Siggi just shrugged and kept talking)

He told us about tourism that has become a boon for Iceland, but also a source of amusement to the locals. The Reykjanes peninsula, on which the lighthouse was built, is at the confluence of the polar waters from the north near Greenland and the warm Atlantic Gulf stream, the cold and warm currents meet right at the point. This not only causes treacherous seas, but contributes to a warmer climate with more clear days–the best place in Iceland to view the Northern Lights. He said the Japanese believe a child conceived under the Aurora Borealis will be blessed with good luck, and that before there were enough hotels built here the locals told their children not to wander around here after dark, there were so many Japanese couples trying to make luck. Now they have built a special hotel with skylights in the rooms over the beds. They call them Production Rooms. Siggi winked and smiled.

At the end of the story, Siggi got up and disappeared into the kitchen, talking as he went. "Now, there is a saying that the women in Iceland have. No matter how hard it gets, you must always remember to be thankful. You could lose your husband to the sea, but you still have your children to remember him by. You might have only fish to eat, but at least you have something to eat. Life might seem hard, but there will always be someone that needs more help than you." He walked back to us and held open both hands. In each palm, he had a small lava rock, smooth and black. "Carry this with you and let it be a reminder of everything you are thankful for. Keep it in your pocket, and once a day pull it out, remind yourself that there is much in life to be thankful for."

We took the rocks from him and rolled them around between our fingers. There was something comforting about the way they felt, this tiny bit of Iceland small enough to carry with us. We slipped them into our pockets and thanked Siggi for a wonderful time. An hour had passed, the coffee and hot chocolate was gone and it was time to say goodbye.

Back in the van, we took the stones from our pockets and looked at them again. We didn't know how much a (slightly) grumpy guy telling (slightly) tall tales in an old lighthouse could brighten our day, but we knew we were thankful he did.

Siggi and Mark inside the cafe at The Lighthouse of Love
(Next up: Camping in Iceland)

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Iceland Part II: Transportation and Food

The taxi dropped us off at the Cozy Campers headquarters, located in a neighborhood that was a strange mix of industrial and residential. The driver helped us unload our bags and thankfully, as we wheeled them into the office, a worker ran out and handed him what looked like a voucher. He seemed happy with it, so we were released from the worry the poor guy wouldn't get paid.

The office had a nice reception room with plush couches and chairs with a fake fireplace that was glowing with electric flames. Lining one wall was shelving and a small glass-doored refrigerator loaded with jars, cans and bottles of food items, some half empty. A young woman at the counter asked for our names. In case you were wondering, we knew how to pronounce them.

"Ah! Yes, here you are." She pulled up our information in the computer and printed out our paperwork. "Two weeks, returning on September 14?"

We signed everywhere she pointed, promising not to take the van off-road, acknowledging any traffic tickets or driver induced accidents were our problem, and most importantly, that we would be fully responsible for any damage caused by unsafe water crossings. Yes, water crossings. This is a thing in Iceland.

She took us outside and showed us the camper van, our home for the next two weeks. The front was a regular mini-van set up, a bench seat with room for three passengers or in our case, two passengers and all our camera equipment. The back was accessed by a sliding side door. Inside was a bench seat that cleverly converted to a bed at night, with storage underneath for pillows, feather comforters, and a bottom sheet, along with anything else we wanted to stow away. The other wall and back of the camper had a built in counter top/cabinet system where our pots and pans, tea kettle, stove and kitchen utensils/plates/cups/bowls were stored. The large cabinet across the back had plenty of room for food items. There was a small built in sink with a faucet and a small fridge wedged in there too.

The extra seat came in handy when one of our occasionally friends needed a ride.
Most of the time though, it was taken up by our camera equipment.

The interior included a couch with pillows, fridge, and even a handy map on the wall with all the major roads listed (including the roads we were banned from taking)

The back hatch opened up to reveal more storage, the water tank with easy snap connections (so removal for refilling was quick and painless), and the camper battery. The battery ran the faucet, the fridge, the cool LED lighting system that was built in to the cabinetry, and most importantly, the heater. This battery was charged when the van was running, and if it went low only took a few minutes of running the engine to top back up.

There was extra storage in the back, perfect for beer, soda and boxed food.

Water bin and electrical, simple and effective.
It all looked pretty straightforward, so after walking around the vehicle noting any existing dings in the paint, we went back inside to finish off the paperwork. After signing a few more things, and getting handouts explaining road signs that are unique to Iceland, she told us to help ourselves to any food on the shelves or in the fridge.

This was new to us, but turned out to be a common and delightful occurrence throughout our trip. Here and at most of the campgrounds, there was a spot set aside for extra food and stove fuel canisters. People were welcome to help themselves, and those that were finishing up their trip and found they overbought were welcome to leave their extras. I wish this would catch on in the States, what a great idea. Of course you'd run the risk of having people sue because they got sick, or worse, someone would decide to poison something and leave it for a hapless victim. Maybe not such a good idea in the US.

We picked up salt, some spices and condiments, oatmeal, and a packet of little tiny sausages that looked good, then loaded our luggage and free food into the van. We sat in the parking lot for a minute trying to get our bearings.

Mark demonstrates the best feature of a full size hatch door: it doubled as an awning in the rain enabling us to cook outdoors in bad weather.

Before leaving the airport, we stopped by the ATM and got some cash, and we had also purchased a SIM card for our phone. Verizon had a number of options for overseas use, but they had all worked out to be more expensive than the SIM card. We bought one that was good for unlimited data and cell use for 14 days, just enough to cover us until we got to the apartment we would be staying in for the last few days of the trip (WiFi included!). This meant our phone number was changed to an Icelandic one, but it allowed us to have the use of our phone for navigation, texting relatives back home, email, and who are we kidding, the occasional Instagram moment. I typed in "grocery stores" and Google maps came up with a few options nearby, then we were off.

We made a list before we left home, having learned a basic math lesson in Tanzania:

 New Country+No Sleep+Unfamiliar Labels=Hungry Campers

We weren't going to get caught out again! Armed with our handy list, we arrived at a Kronan Grocery store ready for quick and efficient shopping. Piece of cake!

The store looked just like grocery stores here. There were aisles for baked goods, cereals, chips, sodas. Instead of cold cases they had an entire room that was chilled, you entered through separate doors to get to the dairy, eggs and chilled meats. For the most part, there was at least some english on the labels so we could tell what we were buying. We had to guess the jam flavor by inspecting the color, and the juice luckily had the mix of fruits displayed on the label. There were some American brands—especially kids cereal interestingly enough—but most were European.

The produce area looked the same as well, except for the lack of diversity. There were piles of hot house tomatoes, bins of apples, potatoes, and some greens like broccoli and lettuce. There was very little citrus of any kind, and certainly no pineapple or mango or other warm climate type fruit, not surprising given the latitude of Iceland. What was in great abundance though, were zeros. As in lots and lots of extra zeros on the price markers.

(Photo credit: What's On)
Virtually everything in Iceland is imported. They have geothermally heated greenhouses where they grow certain vegetables, and of course sheep and some dairy farms, but everything else comes in by boat or plane. This is costly of course, and it shows up on the price tags. We stood in awe as our yogurt, granola, apples, milk and bread added up on the monitor. Throw in some cheese, a few cokes and some chips and it bumped up much quicker. We walked out with two smallish bags of groceries having paid well over $100. Guess we'll be eating a lot of PBJs on this trip.

(A word about alcohol in Iceland: Beer, wine and liquor are not sold in grocery stores here. There are separate stores, Vinbudin, that are the only ones authorized to sell it. They have limited hours and are not as plentiful as grocery stores; we mostly saw them in the larger towns. If we thought the grocery prices were high, a visit to a Vinbudin put that thought to rest: A six pack of beer was $25.00. Fun Beer Fact: it was illegal to make or buy beer in Iceland until March 1, 1989. That's right, 1989. To this day, March 1st is a National Holiday called, fittingly, Beer Day.)

Out in the parking lot, we loaded our purchases with great care, not wanting to lose even one precious carrot. It was time to take this van to its natural habitat, the campground in Hafnarfjör∂ur where our friends would meet us. On the ride over, we practiced saying the town name; Hahf-nahr-Fyor-thish. 

Or something like that.

(Next up: we take this van on the road and meet Siggi at his lighthouse cafe.)